What follows below is the original Appendix - 6 proposed amendment, followed by an array of news items following its metamorphosis into Proposition M.
The following mailer (100,000 copies) was sent to San Franscisco citizens, promoting a Taxi Rider Bill of Rights. Attached to it was a proposed "Appendix 6 to the San Francisco Administrative Code", which will effectively repeal Proposition K of June 1978, replacing it with an abbreviated, but sweeping authority should it be passed.
The mailer is 2-sided, folded in 3 sections, making a convenient mailer with companion return postcard. Print out both sides of this mailer, staple (or glue) them together, fold in 3, and you will have a reasonably accurate simulation of the real thing.
Describing and setting forth a proposal to the qualified voters of the City and County of San Francisco to adopt an ordinance repealing Appendix 6 to the San Francisco Administrative Code (adopted June 6, 1978) relating to the regulation of taxicabs and other motor vehicles for hire and providing for the adoption and enforcement of regulations, policies and procedures governing the operation of taxicabs and other motor vehicles for hire.
Be it ordained by the people of the City and County of San Francisco:
Severability. If any section, subsection, subdivision, paragraph, sentence, clause or phrase in this measure or any part thereof, is for any reason held to be unconstitutional or invalid or ineffective by any court of competent jurisdiction, such decision shall not affect the validity or effectiveness of the remaining portions of this measure or any part thereof. The qualified electors of the City and County of San Francisco hereby declare that they would have passed each section, subsection, subdivision, paragraph, sentence, clause or phrase thereof, irrespective of the fact that any one or more sections, subsection, subdivision, paragraphs, sentence, clause or phrases be declared unconstitutional, invalid or ineffective.
On Nov. 7, San Francisco residents will vote on 18 city propositions, ranging from A to R. The opinion pages editors have selected three ballot measures that have generated the greatest interest, and debate, among city residents. These are Propositions F and G, competing measures for Saturday closure of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park; Propositions K and L, competing measures for controlling office and live-work unit development, and Proposition M on taxi permits.
IF A SALESPERSON whose merchandise you'd rejected six times before came to your door once more, you'd be pretty wary of the product. Regardless of the claims contained on the package, you'd want to look inside the box. The merchandise is Proposition M, the seventh cab company attack on the governing law of the San Francisco taxi industry, Proposition K passed by voters in 1978.
The manufacturers of this faulty merchandise are San Francisco taxi companies; the salespeople are the most influential lobbyists and political consultants of San Francisco politics. The packaging is the slickest that a half a million dollars raised from cab companies can buy. But the product is the same shoddy stuff cab companies have been peddling since 1978.
Prop. K called for issuing as many permits as needed to provide good cab service. It allows for different kinds of permits to be issued, including permits for wheelchair-accessible ramp taxis, neighborhood taxis and others supposedly authorized by Prop. M. In fact, 65 ramp taxis are on the streets today. There is no reason why the Taxi Commission can't issue an untold amount of neighborhood-only taxi permits or take steps to improve service to outlying neighborhoods in other ways.
Because the current law issues permits only to working drivers on the waiting list, the person responsible for the quality and condition of the cab is often the person also behind the wheel. The only new power Prop. M grants to the Taxi Commission is the authority to issue ``fleet permits,'' allowing taxi companies to reap the entire profit by holding and renting out the city permit to drivers. Unlike the current requirement that drivers must provide taxi service in exchange for ownership, these company ``owners'' might never even have to drive!
As co-chairman of the Mayor's Taxi Task Force, I became intimately familiar with the workings of the taxi industry and the problems of taxi service. Stemming from recommendations of the task force, 400 more taxi permits have been issued, including wheelchair-accessible taxis. This fall, I will encourage the Taxi Commission to issue up to 500 additional taxi permits and to institute a plan for making taxi dispatch more efficient.
Despite claims in the packaging, Prop. M does not grant the Taxi Commission any additional authority to issue permits. Instead, Prop. M short-circuits the reforms begun by the task force. If it passes, the losers would be the riding public, who were misled to think it would result in better taxicab service. Needed reforms would fall by the wayside in this cab-company grab for profits. It's high time for taxi companies to overcome their obsession with profits and start providing the public the taxi service it deserves.
Gavin Newsom is a San Francisco supervisor.
On Nov. 7, San Francisco residents will vote on 18 city propositions, ranging from A to R. The opinion pages editors have selected three ballot measures that have generated the greatest interest, and debate, among city residents. These are Propositions F and G, competing measures for Saturday closure of JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park; Propositions K and L, competing measures for controlling office and live-work unit development, and Proposition M on taxi permits.
TRIED TO CATCH a cab lately? Then you know about the extreme shortage of taxicabs in San Francisco.
If you live in one of the city's outer neighborhoods, you probably have given up on cabs entirely. If you are a disabled or senior rider who uses wheelchair-accessible taxis, then you are all too familiar with long waits for service.
While it is obvious that San Francisco needs more cabs, any new cabs will need to serve the neighborhoods, not just downtown and the airport.
Proposition M will put more cabs in your neighborhood. Under Prop. M, the city Taxi Commission will have the explicit authority to issue new need-based taxi permits to individuals on the permit waiting list who would agree to serve specific geographic areas of the city, operate during peak times of demand, or operate at the airport or only in San Francisco.
The concept of need-based permits is not new. The mayor's yearlong Taxi Task Force, comprised of more than 25 individuals representing all aspects of the taxi industry, considered specific types of permits, such as San Francisco-only and peak-time taxis. Prop. M gives the Taxi Commission the authority it needs to issue these types of permits.
Prop. M also will expand the number of wheelchair-accessible cabs on the street by making them more economical to operate.
Disabled and senior riders, who rely on paratransit service and wheelchair-accessible taxis, are limited in their ability to move about the city. Only 3 of the more than 32 taxi companies operate ramp taxis because the vans are twice as expensive to purchase, operate and maintain as a conventional taxi.
While the companies that provide wheelchair-accessible taxis do an admirable job of serving the community, the number of ramp taxis in operation is simply not enough to meet the needs of the disabled and senior communities. Prop. M provides incentives to expand the paratransit program and give the elderly and disabled equal transportation options. As an incentive, two individuals on the permit waiting list will be allowed to pool their economic resources to operate a ramp taxi.
Clearly, our current taxi system is not serving the public. The Taxi Commission, recommended by the mayor's Taxi Task Force and established by the voters in 1998, was a first step in reforming the taxi industry and providing better service to the public. Prop. M is the next positive step toward giving the public taxi service when and where they need it.
August Longo is the chairman of the Elderly and Disabled Advisory Committee of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.
Prop. M is a veiled power grab by the taxicab industry; increased service could be had without a ballot measure, ELECTION 2000
PROPOSITION M on the San Francisco ballot is yet another attempt by the larger cab companies to carve a more advantageous place for themselves in The City's complex system of regulating taxi service. The measure would permit issuance of several new kinds of taxicab permits ostensibly to meet specialized needs such as that for service in outlying neighborhoods, "airport-only" or "San Francisco-only" service.
And its dry language would create, almost in passing, a new category of "fleet permit."
Whoa! That's a stop sign.
It's a sop to the big taxicab operations. It rattles the longstanding city policy, approved by voters in Proposition K of 1978, of concentrating permits in the hands of the cabs' owner-drivers.
Any reversal in that practice is a disservice to drivers who have waited years for their turn to receive one of the limited number of permits, or medallions, required to operate taxicabs here. More importantly, it is a disservice to taxi customers, who deserve the best cab service possible.
The measure was put on the ballot by seven supervisors and is supported by Mayor Brown. But it is opposed, significantly, by the supervisor who is most expert on the complicated business: Gavin Newsom.
Newsom served as co-chair of the Mayor's Taxi Task Force study that recommended creation of the two-year-old Taxi Commission and issuance of hundreds more taxicab permits. He says the commission already has the power to issue more permits, and different kinds of permits, to improve service to riders, but he points with alarm at Prop. M's "new class of 'fleet permits,' and other provisions allowing for companies, rather than individuals, to control permits."
Our preference is deregulating the cab industry as much as possible. Failing that major move, there are other steps to take.
The Taxi Commission should work more vigorously to improve the availability of taxi service when and where it is needed throughout The City. But ye olde power grab by Yellow Cab, Luxor Cab et al. is not the solution.
Vote no on Prop. M
The taxicab industry in this town is every bit as honest as a Moroccan marketplace. If you drive a cab and do not cross the necessary palms with silver you do not make any money. Baksheesh is the name of the taxi game.
Want your cab on time and in good running order? It'll cost you. Over coffee I asked my old pal Ruach Graffis, who has been driving on and off since 1973, how much you had to grease a dispatcher these days.
``What nationality are you?`` she shot back.
Which made me laugh.
``I kid you not. The Brazilians are 20 bucks. The cheapest date in town is like three bucks. You want to drive this Friday night? That would cost you 20 no matter what your nationality.``
Of course the baksheesh is merely the side dish. The companies feed on the lease fees, which are called gates. Right now they average $83.50. A driver has to fork over $83.50 to the company, and pay it maybe $30 more for gas, before a penny goes into his pocket. The only reason gates are that low is the Taxicab Workers Union, in which Ruach is a leader, fought for and won a ceiling.
The greed of the industry profiteers is a helium balloon. It rises and rises forever. Which brings us to Proposition M.
Proposition M is where the tread meets the road in terms of political corruption, which is to say it is where the taxi barons meet Mayor Willie Brown and the Board of Supervisors. Everybody shouts howdy-do and jigs to the bank.
Don't get me wrong. I'm absolutely certain the only reason the supervisors have gone to the electoral well seven times in two decades trying to get more taxi medallions into the piggy paws of the companies is out of concern with your problem getting a cab, dear rider.
It is also evident that supes have spent as much as $400,000 to get elected because there was nothing they wanted more than a $37,585 salary and a chance to serve the public.
Open-handed taxi industry campaign contributions? Never entered their minds.
Like the supes, the taxi barons care. Here's how much. The vast majority of drivers lease their shifts from Yellow, Luxor and a few other companies. I don't want to romanticize my old compatriots behind the wheel, because plenty of them are rude, or hustlers, or don't know Union Square from Portsmouth Square.
But the majority is as honest as you or me. They're on our streets twelve hours a shift, humping it to make what is barely a living, maybe $100 to $150 a shift.
They're doing it without health insurance, without Social Security, and at the whim of petty tyrants whom they have to bribe to work. They wouldn't be eligible for workers compensation or unemployment either if the companies had gotten their way in court.
But if you're a rider, what you want is a taxi. That's what matters to you -- enough taxis. Are there enough? Are you kidding? From a passenger's perspective there's never a cab when you want one.
From a driver's perspective, there's a lot of dead time when he's not making a dime. How many passengers want a cab at 9 p.m. on a rainy November Wednesday?
One thing that motivates the more committed, more experienced driver is that after working 10 or 15 years he'll reach the top of the waiting list and get a permit, which he can then lease to the big companies. At that point, both the money and the working conditions get better.
If Proposition M passes, though, you'll get fewer experienced drivers on the streets, and more greenhorns willing to pay any price to grasp the bottom rung of the economic ladder.
Overall service will not improve because veteran drivers know all the tricks and can deliver far more rides per shift than newcomers. Of course, Mayor Brown says he'll forget the whole thing if only the drivers would agree to 500 new permits.
``If Yellow Cab gets all those corporate permits,`` said Ruach tiredly, ``the guys who've been waiting 10 years are going to wait until they die. This is the seventh time the cab companies put something on the ballot and outspent us 40-1 and the people have beaten them every time. At what point does Yellow Cab give up and say, `OK, the people are right.' ''
Twelth of Never, my dear, Twelth of Never.
Saying that the addition of 400 taxis in San Francisco over the past two years has not been nearly enough to improve service, Mayor Willie Brown called yesterday for 500 more cab permits to be issued.
By early next year, the city will have 1,381 taxi permits under the plan formulated more than two years ago by a task force appointed by the mayor. So Brown's new call for action by the Taxi Commission, whose members he appoints, would raise that number to almost 2,000.
``I want 500 more taxi permits,'' Brown said during an appearance on Ronn Owens' KGO-AM radio program. ``Many parts of this city are without service.''
Brown's statement confirmed what a lot of restaurant owners, hotel people and residents in outlying neighborhoods know -- available cabs can be all but impossible to find during many busy times of the day.
Brown's comments threw a curve into the effort to pass Proposition M, a measure on the Nov. 7 ballot sponsored by the taxi industry that calls for creating new classes of taxi permits, such as for neighborhood- only and airport-only service, and cabs that can accommodate wheelchairs.
Even though Brown will appear as Prop M's chief proponent in the ballot book that the city will start mailing to voters in the next few weeks, he said yesterday that he'd like to see backers and opponents reach an agreement on more taxis that would make the measure unnecessary.
``We won't need that measure on the ballot if we get those additional permits,'' he said.
Brown said he wants the two sides to negotiate a settlement. Opponents of Prop M, who include Supervisor Gavin Newsom and the United Taxicab Workers Union, charge that the measure is a veiled attempt by cab companies to get their hands on more of the lucrative permits. They also say the proposition is unnecessary because the commission can already add more permits and create special types of permits.
Proposition K, which voters approved in 1978, said corporate permits should be illegal, but the companies have fought surrendering them ever since because they are regarded as money makers.
Brown's latest move caught Newsom off-guard. ``Let me compliment the mayor for saying this. . . . This shows the measure is unnecessary,'' said Newsom, who chaired Brown's taxi task force but has since become a critic of the new commission.
``There is tremendous unhappiness about what has happened to the commission. They need to be more aggressive. They can create those special permits now,'' Newsom added.
On the cab-company side, political consultant Robert Barnes, whose firm BMW Partners persuaded seven supervisors to put Prop M on the ballot, said he is prepared to talk. ``If we can get relief for the neighborhoods, that's great. We will meet anytime, anywhere.''
Mark Gruberg of the taxi workers union was more skeptical. ``It's a political ploy. . . . I don't know what we would do if that were brought to us.'' The union hasn't supported the full complement of 400 new cabs already going on the streets, fearing that such a big number could hurt drivers' incomes.
Barnes said, ``Our problem is that the union has been a major opponent of putting more cabs on the street.''
Jamie Maddox, president of the Taxi Medallion Holders of San Francisco, said the commission already has the power to issue more permits. ``We don't need any ballot measure to improve service. They can just do it.
The commission plans to hold its annual hearings in the fall on whether more cab permits should be issued. Newsom said he may introduce a resolution to the Board of Supervisors, urging the commission to move quickly to issue more permits, regardless of the ballot measure.
E-mail Edward Epstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sometimes it's tough to find a cab -- even as you watch dozens go by -- in downtown San Francisco. In the outlying neighborhoods it's even harder. But, when it comes to taxis in crime-plagued neighborhoods such as Bayview-Hunters Point, there is probably only one thing the industry agrees on: Once the sun goes down, you're probably not going to get one.
Beyond that, there is little consensus on whether there should be more taxis, on whether there should be a central dispatch system, even on the validity of customer complaints.
The debates will continue tonight at a hearing conducted by the city's taxi commission in the Bayview-Hunters Point district.
The taxi commission is pushing a November ballot measure, Proposition M, that it says would allow the commission to issue special permits that would restrict some cab service to certain neighborhoods.
``The ideal scenario would be to have drivers create small cab companies in the neighborhoods that they live in,'' said Chris Dittenhafer, a neighborhood representative on the city's taxi commission. ``Then, these companies can hire drivers that live in the neighborhoods.''
One proponent of Proposition M is Dwayne Robinson, 40. Robinson, a Bayview-Hunters Point resident, said he's given up on the city's current system of service.
``People out here don't even call a taxi out here anymore,'' said Robinson, owner of the Bayview Barber College. They know they're not going to get picked up. The only time I ever see a cab out here is when 101 is backed up and the drivers want to use an alternate route.''
Bobby Turner works at Third Street and Palou Avenue in Bayview. He said he would definitely support the ballot measure.
``It's absolutely ludicrous,'' Turner said. ``I work in a commercial area, not far from downtown, and I never see a cab.''
Even if you can hail a cab, getting the driver to accept you can be difficult if your destination is Bayview-Hunters Point, he said.
``I was leaving the courthouse at 850 Bryant,'' Turner said, ``and talked to three cabs. They all suggested I take a bus because they said they don't like the area, `It's a bad area.' I was powerless. But I'm younger; when I see senior citizens who can't get a cab, that's tough.''
Mark Capitolo, spokesman for the Coalition for Better Neighborhood Taxi Service, said the purpose of the campaign in support of Proposition M is to get more cabs on the street.
``As soon as you get out of the Financial district, you're really hurting,'' he said. ``This measure is specifically targeted to areas where service is needed.''
But opponents of Proposition M, an amendment to 1978's Proposition K, say the measure is really an attempt to put taxi permits in the hands of taxi companies -- instead of drivers -- without improving taxi service.
``If this were about service, the taxi companies wouldn't need to spend half a million dollars to promote this measure,'' said Joseph Fleischman, secretary treasurer of the San Francisco Taxi Permit Holders and Drivers Association, referring to a letter that DeSoto Cab Co. sent to taxi drivers explaining that cab companies paid $500,000 to the well-connected lobbying firm Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst & Partners.
``They would spend a small fraction of that amount and would have upgraded their antiquated dispatch system,'' he added.
Demand for permits
In the city's taxi regulation scheme, for the past 22 years only taxi drivers have been able to own permits, which grant the right to operate a taxi. To make their money, taxi companies have had to ``rent'' the permits from the drivers.
``Big money has never liked drivers getting permits,'' said Fleischman, who added that San Francisco is the only city in the country that gives permits to drivers. ``These permits are a treasure that investors want for themselves.''
With 1,381 permits on the street, and an 11-year waiting list with 2,600 names, Fleischman and other drivers fear that if Proposition M passes, taxi companies will push their way to the front of the line.
``There is a service problem in this city,'' Fleischman said, ``but big money doesn't want better service because that would satisfy the public, and getting fleet permits requires a public dissatisfied enough to change the system. So dispatch stays antiquated and we're given Prop. M to reward big money with fleet permits.''
Fleischman said better service could be had with a ``universal, centralized, Internet-based, state-of-the-art dispatch system.''
``But we don't have to vote on centralized dispatch,'' he noted. ``That's something the taxi commission can mandate right now.''
A centralized dispatch system would be in contact with every cab in the city, and when a ``fare'' is called in, any particular driver in the proximity of the area could accept the pick-up, Fleischman said.
Jim Gillespie, general manager of DeSoto Cab Co., is all in favor of improving communication between customers and companies, but he said a citywide dispatch system is not the answer.
Gillespie said he preferred a dispatch system that allowed companies the option of transferring a dispatch to another company if a driver has not answered a call in 15 minutes.
``We have developed a following; we don't want to lose our base of loyal customers,'' he said.
But Laurel Heights resident Kevin Rooney doesn't think a different dispatch system alone will be enough. The city simply needs more cabs on the streets, he said.
Rooney said that in the past, when he called companies like Luxor, Yellow Cab and DeSoto, he received a busy signal most of the time.
``I have to go out to the intersection of California and Presidio,'' said Rooney, who uses taxi service about four times a week. ``But cabs are always full, and the ones that are empty usually pass me by.''
Rooney has taken cabs in other major cities, including Boston, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and he said San Francisco's system ranks ``dead last.''
``There just aren't enough cabs,'' Rooney said. ``I believe we need to double the number of cabs. All my friends feel the same way.''
But more cabs may not solve the problem of service in certain neighborhoods.
Dwayne Jones is still puzzled by the lack of service in his neighborhood -- even though the city has issued 400 new permits in the last three years. He said getting a cab to come to Bayview-Hunters Point is next to impossible.
``I thought service would improve,'' Jones said. ``But nothing has transpired from that. On at least three occasions, I have called a cab to go downtown and, after an hour, they called back and said, `We don't service that area.' ''
Jones lived in Oakland for nine years and said he never had the troubles as he has faced in San Francisco.
``I never had a problem getting a cab in Oakland,'' he said. ``I don't think there is a shortage of cabs, I think racism is the primary contributor.''
Dittenhafer of the taxi commission said he has received thousands of complaints from residents about the city's taxi service, and that the only way to change the system is to amend the ``outdated laws'' of Proposition K.
But Sgt. Vince Simpson of the San Francisco Police Taxicab Detail, the enforcement arm of the city's taxi commission, said his office only receives about three to six complaints a month.
``I can't see the problem based on the complaints that we have received,'' he said. ``I think it's becoming a big issue because of the political situation.''
IF YOU'RE INTERESTED
The public hearing begins at 6:30 p.m. at the Southeast Community Center, 1800 Oakdale Ave. Contact David Cragin at email@example.com.
On the morning of Sunday, July 2, Hattie Neelon dressed for church, as always. Kidney problems have slowed her, but Neelon is still an officer of the Missionary Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and an important part of her life is focused there. So she called a cab, got ready, and waited in her Western Addition home. But the cab never came. Saddened, Neelon, who is 72 years old, went back to bed.
In June, she called a taxi to attend a memorial service for Floydine Cooks. But that taxi never arrived, either. So Neelon couldn't attend the memorial.
"We had worked in church together," recalls Neelon. "That kind of hurt, because I didn't get to say goodbye."
Bad taxi service is a running joke among visitors to San Francisco; transvestite comedienne Dame Edna, for one, quipped about the city's "five-taxi fleet" during her run at Theater on the Square. In these tales, abysmal S.F. taxi service is described like the cold Sunset District fog: a familiar nuisance, inevitable yet benign.
But San Francisco's lousy taxi system, the fruit of a Byzantine regulatory framework born of political patronage, cronyism, and piles upon piles of campaign cash, harms the public more deeply than most people recognize. Taxis are, in fact, a vital segment of the city's transportation system. In combination with mass transit, the proper number of cabs could lessen congestion, reduce the need for car ownership, and generally make the city more livable.
If not for the monied interests at stake, our taxi deficit -- there is an obvious demand for hundreds upon hundreds more cabs -- could be rectified with a pen's stroke. Basically, the city commission that regulates taxis just needs to authorize hundreds upon hundreds of new permits, or medallions, to cab drivers, and thereby put hundreds upon hundreds of additional taxis on the street. But a direct, obvious solution does not appear to be in the cards. Demagoguery does.
On the first Tuesday evening in August, City Hall's Hearing Room 400 was packed with dozens of people from far-flung sections of the city. They had been trucked in to speak in front of the San Francisco Taxi Commission in protest against the lack of taxicabs in San Francisco. Their testimony pushed the meeting past midnight.
It was an odd display, given that there was nothing on the commission's agenda even remotely related to increasing the number of taxis in the city. But a careful survey of the hearing room provided a simple explanation for the show; it was written in the nervous, elusive gaze of Taxi Commission member Chris Dittenhafer, a blond-haired striver considered, in some circles, to be the taxicab companies' man at City Hall.
Dittenhafer had finished off the previous week with an unabashed grab for "soft" political money that was so brazen and unethical as to be astounding, even by San Francisco standards. He had taken thousands of dollars from taxi companies -- which, as a city taxi commissioner, he is entrusted by the public to regulate -- to print a glossy flier that ambiguously called upon voters to "change the outdated laws" governing taxis, and that posited Dittenhafer himself as a champion of neighborhood taxi riders. Dittenhafer just happens to be running this fall for a Board of Supervisors seat in District 6.
Three days later, minutes before the deadline for filing ballot initiatives for the fall election, the city's major cab companies and seven supervisors joined to put a taxi reform measure on the ballot. The measure would change laws regarding taxis in perhaps -- just perhaps -- the very ways that Dittenhafer's flier advocated.
Chris Dittenhafer, described by some as Willie Brown's man in the District 6 race, doesn't come across as the sharpest pencil in the box. He either misunderstands, or pretends to misunderstand, simple questions. His responses are elliptical, but artlessly so. Hi taxi-flier stunt may be the most ham-handed example of machine-politics money-grubbing in recent memory. He brazenly took political money from an industry he is charged with regulating, and brazenly (if indirectly) helped the industry promote an initiative that would make the industry's life easier.
And then he had the brass to present himself as a champion of the people.
Dittenhafer's bold stupidity could be seen as just another example of the city government's habit of populating important posts with rattle-brained patsies. But there is another, much more polished side to this fall's taxicab initiative.
The initiative, a change to 1978's Proposition K, is really an attempt to put taxi medallions in the hands of taxi companies, without accomplishing anything to significantly improve taxi service in the city. In the city's taxi regulation scheme, for the past 22 years only taxi drivers have been able to own medallions, which confer the right to operate a taxi. To make their money, taxi companies have had to "rent" the medallions from the drivers, and then rent them again, to other drivers. The taxi companies have long resented the cost of renting medallions from drivers, and have long sought the ability to own the medallions directly.
Rather than stating that the taxi company-sponsored initiative on this November's ballot is just the latest taxi company attempt to gain the right to hoard permits, the initiative is sneaky. The initiative adds new, extremely vague language to existing taxi law; this new language would allow for an interpretation that could, in turn, allow corporate permits, and higher taxi company profits.
If the taxi initiative is the most obscure, confusing, inconclusive measure on the November ballot -- and it is -- the initiative will almost certainly be backed by the slickest ad campaign of the election season. According to a letter that the DeSoto Cab Co. sent to taxi drivers, nine taxi companies are planning to pay $500,000 to well-connected lobbyists Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst & Partners to craft the campaign.
It will likely be a brilliant campaign, backing an initiative that purports to create a taxi riders' bill of rights, when it really just increases the profit potential of a bunch of taxi companies that have shown almost no interest whatever in anything about their customers, save for their customers' money. It's a mean piece of sentiment-milking, money-grabbing fraud, and San Franciscans should vote it down.
In opposing November's taxi referendum, I have taken the same position as most all of San Francisco's taxi drivers. They cherish their driver-only permits, and they'd hate to see the taxi companies push their way into the line to get new medallions.
But please don't get me wrong. At heart, the core interest of taxi drivers -- keeping the number of taxis on San Francisco streets as low as possible -- lies squarely against the public good. And in this, the drivers should be cut off at the knees.
For a city that claims to be the heartland of the new digital economy, San Francisco has a mighty primitive way of getting its high-tech entrepreneurs to appointments with venture capitalists.
When you pick up a phone to reserve a cab here, you're calling a dispatcher who has no formal employment relationship whatsoever with taxi drivers. The drivers may -- or may not -- pick you up, depending on how they feel. Taxi company lawyers decided long ago that it was financially beneficial to insist that drivers be "independent contractors" who are not eligible for benefits, job security, or any other amenity that employment provides. So cab companies act merely as leasing agencies, paying a few cabbies who have managed to obtain city permits for the right to use their medallions, and renting them out by the day to the lion's share of the 6,000 drivers who haven't managed to obtain a permit.
Instead of ordering cabbies to pick up customers, a taxi company dispatcher conducts the equivalent of a miniauction, sending out word along the airwaves that a "fare" wishes to be picked up; any particular driver may accept, or ignore, this offer, at his pleasure. A skipped fare doesn't hurt the driver -- there will always be more than he can handle, given the current shortage of permits (which I'll get to in just a moment). And it doesn't hurt the company, which makes its money on the $83.50 per shift a driver pays to rent a permit-adorned cab.
If there is no way of knowing the exact numbers, everyone in the cab industry admits that fares are missed all the time. That's because, by taxi-driver design, there are almost never enough taxis on the street to meet demand. Taxi drivers accomplish this artificial shortage of cabs by using politics to limit the number of taxi permits issued by the city.
It's an economist's adage that you can't put a price on anything unless it's scarce. And half-ounce or so taxi medallions are more valuable than gold in this town. So scarce are the city permits -- the waiting list is 2,600 names, with an 11-year wait -- that the lucky few drivers with permits lease medallions to the cab companies for an allowed maximum of $1,800 per month. The city, for its trouble, receives a one-time, $227 application fee. There are now 1,381 permits on the street.
The city increased that number by 100 this year. The drivers fought even this paltry number, and it's easy to see why: A house providing an $1,800-per-month revenue stream would be worth more than $200,000.
According to word on the street, drivers are frequently paid under the table much more than the maximum-allowable $1,800. Before that limit went into effect two years ago, cabbies say medallion-holders were earning between $3,000 and $3,500, a price that some observers contend now approaches $3,800. Another way permit holders get around the $1,800 lease limit is for medallion-holding drivers to "rent" their cab-company shifts directly to non-medallion-holding drivers for more than $100 per shift.
"That's between drivers. It's like pennies from heaven. The money's out there. It's a madhouse," says Phil Ferrucci, a dispatcher at Veterans Cab. "Drivers don't want to see more cabs because they're making money hand over fist. If they poor-mouth you, they're full of shit. The fares are there."
To maintain their permits, taxi drivers must, by law, work two-thirds of the shifts in a given year, assuming a five-day work week. So cabbies will work a handful of three-hour "shifts" on the weekend, keep a normal day job, and then pocket tens of thousands of dollars in fees as they lease the medallions during the rest of the week. When you see lines of cabbies lounging outside hotels, waiting for airport fares, you can bet that many of them are permit owners, "working" their obligatory shifts. And you can bet the farm -- or a taxi medallion -- that these guys aren't likely to respond to calls from elderly ladies in the Western Addition.
Taxi drivers say increasing the number of medallions would reduce the quality and decorousness of drivers on San Francisco streets. They say that if there were more medallions, competition among drivers for fares would cause cabbies to drive recklessly.
For most readers, it's not necessary to point out the hilariousness of these assertions. For the rest, I'll recall the driver who, as I sat in the back seat, gunned his engine repeatedly at a woman in a crosswalk, shouting, "Run! Run! C'mon, run!" He wanted to see her breasts bounce.
Or I'll direct you to the SF Weekly guest column written by a cracker-moron cabbie saying his pals consider cyclists on the street "hamburger."
Or I'll describe the dozens of cabbies who've snarled at me when I have meekly requested, from the passenger's seat, that they attempt not to run down pedestrians while I'm in the car.
You want more examples of the current decorousness of San Francisco cabbies? I've got plenty I can send you. My e-mail address is at the bottom of this column.
The cab companies claim to favor raising limits on the number of medallions issued. Don't let them fool you. Their very reason for existence would be threatened if the city increased the number of taxis allowed on the streets to anywhere near a useful level.
The role of the taxi company as a permit brokerage/leasing agency would become almost meaningless, if anyone who wanted a taxi permit could get it for just $227. A centralized, neutral citywide dispatch system, meanwhile, would remove the taxi companies' other reason to exist. Under such a system -- which the Taxi Commission is considering right now, but doesn't seem likely to authorize -- customers would call the citywide dispatcher (or -- gasp! -- contact the dispatcher by Internet). A call would go to all taxis in the city, rather than the few controlled by a given company, as is the case now.
So why not dramatically reduce the backlog of medallion requests, perhaps by 1,000 or so? And after we put another 1,000 cabs on city streets, why not construct a neutral, citywide dispatch system, so more cabs would have the opportunity to answer each call? This could be done without a single change in city laws, without a single ballot measure.
This is not an implausible daydream. I ran it by the Board of Supervisors' resident taxi expert, Gavin Newsom: "If I were king, if I were mayor, I'd do that in seconds flat," he said. During the past three years, Newsom has helped increase the number of medallions by 400, against lobbying by the drivers. And in an ideal world, he said, "I'd massively increase the number of taxicabs, focusing on all the districts. I'd work aggressively to move away from independent contractor's status [for drivers]."
The Taxi Commission has the power each year to increase the number of medallions by whatever number it deems necessary. But last year supposed "rider advocate" Chris Dittenhafer proposed the number be increased by only 100 for all of the year 2000. Why so few?
"That's what the Taxi Task Force recommended," Dittenhafer offered by way of explanation.
That's what the mayor's Taxi Task Force recommended. And Dittenhafer hopes to become the mayor's supervisorial candidate. Though I badgered him for nearly an hour (I urge you to try this some time for fun), he refused to express a single specific opinion about issues affecting the city, apparently in hopes he would not inadvertently contradict something the mayor might later say.
And so it goes: A new ballot initiative, cynically supported by city supervisors who are well aware of the lobbying power of Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst & Partners, will be falsely promoted as a solution to this city's horrid taxi problem. If the ballot measure fails, which it should, taxi drivers will seize the political momentum to fight against a badly needed increase in the number of city permits issued.
And Hattie Neelon will continue to call taxicabs every Sunday, and every time there's a funeral for a friend. And she will wait. And far too often she will end up going back to bed.
The initiative's language is so broad and loose that opponents of Prop. M are calling it "M, for murky." But two important impacts seem clear: the measure would allow the Taxicab Commission to issue permits to multiple parties – including companies, in a half dozen specialized categories – and eliminate the driving requirement for permit holders.
Those are major changes. Current city law, established by Proposition K in 1978, prohibits issuing permits to more than one person at a time and requires the holder to drive a certain number of hours each year. Among other things, Prop. M would allow the commission to issue undefined "fleet permits," which, in the taxi business, are typically controlled by cab companies. And although current laws say permit holders must drive to keep their permit, Prop. M says the holder need only "operate" the permit.
As Lucia Hwang reported Aug. 2 (see "Drivers Organize Against Taxi Industry Power Grab"), it's no secret what the cab companies have in mind. Under the guise of improving service, the industry wants to seize control over the city's currently public taxi permits – and to eliminate the requirement that drivers (as opposed to corporations) get the benefits of those permits. Don't be fooled by the hype: the "Neighborhood Taxi Service Improvement Measure" won't improve taxi service in the neighborhoods or anywhere else. But it will surely make life worse for the taxi drivers who provide that service.
San Franciscans who have long complained about not being able to get a cab will vote in November on a taxi company-sponsored ballot measure that's being promoted as a way to improve service.
Proponents of the measure to amend the city's taxi ordinance say it would increase the number of cabs available by granting the city's 2-year-old Taxi Commission the authority to issue corporate or fleet permits to cab companies. Now, only individual drivers can be issued permits.
It also would create entirely new categories of cabs that would operate only in under-served neighborhoods.
But drivers say this measure spells their financial doom. And they say the city could issue new cab permits today, if officials wanted to.
``The Taxi Commission could call a hearing to put out 500 more permits if they want to,'' said Mark Gruberg, spokesman for the United Taxicab Workers union. ``They can say to cab companies that you have to boost the number of pickups or we will revoke your dispatch permit.''
The ballot measure is less about improving service and more a tactic to shift earning power to the companies instead of the drivers, Gruberg said.
``It's not about service,'' he said. ``It's about money. The Taxi Commission wants permits that exclude the driver from having any leverage or economic power.''
Now, driving a cab is both profitable for the driver and the company.
Here's how it works:
The city circulates a limited number of permits; there are currently 1,300 on the street. Some permit holders operate their own cabs, but most lease their permit to a larger cab company for a few thousand dollars a month. The companies, in turn, rent out the cabs, but most lease the cabs by the shift to drivers for a gate fee, typically about $80 to $90. After that, fares collected by drivers during a shift are theirs to keep.
Drivers fear that if the companies hold the permits, as changes to Proposition K would allow, they would lose the profits they now enjoy.
The cab companies want to repeal a 1978 voter-approved ordinance -- Proposition K -- intended to help actual drivers steer the cab industry. The ordinance mandates that only individuals actively driving a cab can hold city-issued permits, a license to own and operate a cab.
But Gruberg fears the commission, when issuing permits, will favor companies over individual drivers.
``I am strictly concerned with better service,'' said Chris Dittenhafer, a member of the San Francisco Taxi Commission. ``I want enough cabs in the city to meet the demand.''
But Gruberg predicts that if the companies get their way and the measure is passed by voters, the industry will become more corporate as companies buy and hoard permits, then are acquired by larger out-of-town companies more concerned with profits than service.
Seven of the city's nine supervisors signed the ballot measure, which was filed at the Department of Elections on Wednesday, the final day for the board or the mayor to put measures on the Nov. 7 ballot.
One member of the board was staunchly opposed to the measure.
``It will give too much power to the cab companies,'' said San Francisco Supervisor Tom Ammiano. ``As it stands now, Prop. K stands in the way of corruption.''
Contact David Cragin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (415) 434-0370.
San Francisco -- San Franciscans will vote in November on a taxi company-sponsored ballot measure that proponents say would sharply improve service but that opponents charge is another industry attempt at a power grab.
Seven supervisors signed the ballot measure, which was filed at the Department of Elections yesterday, the final day for the board or the mayor to put measures on the November 7 ballot.
Five other measures also cascaded in yesterday, including Mayor Willie Brown's proposal to modify Proposition M's limits on office construction and his proposed sweeping changes to the city's business tax setup.
Supervisors, in some cases looking for issues to ride as they head into the new world of district elections in November, also proposed delaying a plan to expand the closure of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park to Saturdays as well as Sundays. The immediate Saturday closure proposal is spelled out in another initiative that had already qualified for the ballot.
Another measure put on the ballot yesterday would call for the Navy to do more to clean up toxic waste at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard than it is now planning, and another would establish a pedestrian safety fund.
The proposed taxi measure would allow the city's 2-year-old Taxi Commission to create entirely new categories of cabs, such as some that could operate only in neighborhoods and not downtown, or run only to San Francisco International Airport or operate during prescribed peak hours.
The goal is to improve the availability of taxis. Even though the number of cabs has jumped to 1,381 from 981 just two years ago, people still complain that taxis are hard to find.
``We've got to do something to make taxi service better,'' said Supervisor Barbara Kaufman, one of the seven who signed the measure. ``Is this going to solve the problem? I don't know.''
The measure, the latest in a series of industry attempts to amend Proposition K, the 1978 measure that governs the taxi industry, also provides that each of the new permits could be issued to more than two people. That means partners could go in to get a permit and buy a cab, or get several permits together.
That would encourage the development of more small cab companies, proponents say.
But opponents say the measure is ``another blatant grab for corporate permits,'' in the words of Mark Gruberg of the United Taxicab Workers union.
The union has opposed all the companies' attempts to change Proposition K, charging that the firms want to dominate what voters have decreed should be an industry designed for driver-owners. Many drivers wait long years on the list to get a permit.
``They (the companies) want to create half a dozen types of new permits and all may be issued to two or more persons, and that could be a corporation as well,'' Gruberg said.
Gruberg charged that the companies dominate the new commission, which voters created in 1998 after a task force created by Mayor Willie Brown and led by Supervisor Gavin Newsom recommended a host of changes to the industry.
``This measure opens the door for the commission to give these permits to anyone they please,'' Gruberg said.
The two biggest cab companies, Yellow and Luxor, recently ended a long legal battle with the city by agreeing to surrender their corporate permits, or medallions, over the next few years.
Newsom was negotiating until yesterday afternoon with the measure's proponents, who are represented at City Hall by the powerful lobbyists John Whitehurst and Robert Barnes. In the end, he came away critical of the proposal.
``People should read this measure very carefully. Be careful of what it says and not what their campaign will tell you it says,'' he said. ``I can't get a straight answer about what some of the wording in there means.''
The other supervisors who didn't sign it were Tom Ammiano and Sue Bierman. Supervisor Leslie Katz was out of town, but proponents say she has indicated her support.
The other measures put on the ballot yesterday include:
-- Supervisor Michael Yaki's attempt to delay the JFK Drive Saturday closure. His measure, which might play well among some of his Richmond District constituents, says JFK Drive should be closed, but only after the planned garage under the Music Concourse is open. That may happen in three years.
``If we're going to do it, let's do it right,'' Yaki said. The concerns of park neighbors and users should be heard, he said, before the popular Sunday closure is expanded.
Leah Shahum of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, a proponent of the immediate closure measure, said, ``We have had 33 years of a trial closing on Sundays. We don't need another two years of study.''
In the case of such dueling measures, the one that gets the most votes becomes city law.
--The pedestrian safety fund put forth by Supervisor Mabel Teng, who has made pedestrians her pet issue. Money for the fund would come from some existing traffic fines and pedestrian programs and would go for street and sidewalk improvements.
-- A declaration of policy on the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, put together by Supervisor Tom Ammiano, that calls on the Navy to clean up toxic waste at the closed facility to the highest level set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The nonbinding measure says doing less would limit uses for the shipyard once it is turned over to the city.
Brown has been negotiating with the Navy about the cleanup, which has been delayed for years. The Navy plans to clean some less-polluted sections of the yard to higher levels than others that are more polluted.
The measures filed yesterday join six others that supervisors had already placed on the ballot. These include a library bond issue, a proposal backing an environmental center at Pier 45, another to keep the supervisors' third staff aide, a mandate to continue the city's children's fund and two involving benefits for city government retirees.
E-mail Edward Epstein at email@example.com.
Proposition K provides that taxi permits (medallions) are the property of the city and cannot be bought or sold. It says that permits must be issued to individual applicants who will be full-time cab drivers.
In order to get the measure on November's ballot, companies need the signatures of either four members of the Board of Supervisors or the mayor. The filing deadline is August 9.
As of late July, none of the supervisors had been asked to support the repeal effort, leading to speculation that cab companies might be concentrating on the mayor.
The campaign budget of $.5 million was mentioned in a letter from the general manager of DeSoto Cab to shareholders. The letter asked shareholders to contribute $500 apiece to the effort.
In the past, cab companies have tried to repeal or amend Prop K in order to restore transferability of permits and allow permits to be issued to corporations. Their most recent ballot measure, Proposition J of 1996, would have amended K for both purposes. Despite spending just shy of $.5 million, the measure lost by a ratio of almost 2-1.
United Taxicab Workers and the San Francisco Taxicab Permit Holders and Drivers Assn., Inc. (PDA) have formed a campaign committee to combat the repeal. Drivers who would like to help in the campaign should call 777-1216.
Business interests expected to flood district elections with unregulated funding
A flood of money from special interests will overwhelm voters during this year's district elections for the Board of Supervisors despite laws trying to force low-budget, grass-roots campaigns.
Business interests are at the forefront of the "soft money" or independent expenditure effort, which will pay for shadow campaigns to influence the voters. They are run separately from candidates' operations.
"Soft money will have an extraordinary role in this election," predicted Jim Ross, public affairs director for Solem & Associates, a political consulting and lobbying firm.
Robert Barnes, another political consultant, said the financing strategy is a natural.
"District elections, with financial limits, increase outside influence in these elections," Barnes said.
And he should know. His firm, Barnes Mosher Whitehurst & Partners - known in political circles as BMW - is planning to run an intricate web of independent expenditure committees that will campaign on behalf of, or against, supervisorial candidates in the fall election.
The firm makes money from commissions, and the take may be in the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars.
Although still compiling a client list, BMW's roster will weigh heavily toward big-spending business groups. Among the possibilities: the taxi cab industry, the restaurant association, the Committee on Jobs, which represents The City's largest corporations, and the Building Owners and Managers Association.
Together, those groups and more than a dozen others were largely responsible for pumping more than $3 million into independent expenditure committee efforts on behalf of Mayor Willie Brown in the mayor's race last year. In contrast, his opponent in the runoff, Board of Supervisors President Tom Ammiano, had just $18,000 in soft money spent on his behalf, according to filings with The City's Ethics Commission.
Charlie Marsteller of Common Cause, a campaign finance watchdog group, said he wouldn't be surprised if the independent expenditures in the supervisors contests match or exceed the amount spent in the mayor's race.
"All the serious money is going to go into the independent committees," he said.
The reason: There are no caps, allowing donors to give as much as they want and committees to spend as much as they want.
Under The City's voluntary spending caps, candidates for the Board of Supervisors each can spend $75,000 in the general election and an additional $20,000 if they make the December runoff.
Barnes, a longtime foe of district elections and spending limits, said trying to run a viable campaign on less than $100,000 is ludicrous.
"These limits are ridiculously low, and they make it impossible for the candidates to break through the noise of the presidential race and all the other issues on the ballot. It's just not realistic," he said. "These campaigns will have to hope that someone will intervene on their behalf."
Ammiano said that prospect will soil the supervisors races.
"I'm sure the soft money will play a big role - a corrupting role," he said. "You're going to have a kind of nuclear bomb in the campaigns."
Marsteller and others who have tried to limit independent expenditures have been thwarted by the courts. Last year, a federal court struck down a law that imposed a spending cap on independent expenditures, and soft money spending soared. In the 1995 mayor's race, when the limits were in effect, $13,000 was spent - compared with $3.2 million in 1999.
"I don't think independent expenditures are evil unto themselves," Marsteller said. "I think the problem is the magnitude of money that is being spent."
Marsteller cited the developer of the Bryant Square project, SKS Investments, which gave nearly $100,000 to an independent expenditure committee on behalf of Brown's re-election bid, then won approval from the mayoral-appointed Planning Commission to build the controversial South of Market complex.
The mayor and the developer denied any horse-trading, but Marsteller said the outcome raised concern.
"At some point, you wonder what that contribution means," he said. "It appears that they're currying favor and there's an appearance of corruption."
Independent expenditure committees are barred from working directly with a candidate's campaign. Soft money is used to pay for everything from radio and television ads to polls, campaign literature, billboards and phone banking.
Barnes said the soft money expenditures will be used to join the candidates with issues.
The first such effort of the campaign season emerged last month when the taxicab industry funded a BMW-orchestrated mailer calling for changes to The City's taxi regulations.
Prominent in the cab piece was Chris Dittenhafer, a taxi commissioner and head of the Council of District Merchants who is the mayor's hand-picked candidate to run for supervisor in District 6, which represents South of Market, the Tenderloin and Hayes Valley.
BMW is expected to work closely with Brown, who is eager to retain his hold on the board majority.
Much of the money is expected to be spent on negative messages about the favored candidate's chief foes.
Ammiano said negative mailers financed by soft money hurt his mayoral bid. But he said a similar flow of soft money in the board races may backfire.
"What district elections are about is going door to door, shaking hands at bus stops, talking one on one," he said. "Maybe people will be turned off by the tsunami of soft money."
But Ken Cleaveland, government affairs director for the Building Owners and Managers Association, said the focus of district elections on neighborhood concerns is exactly why business leaders are eager to fund independent expenditure committees.
"It's going to be critical for the business community, in particular, to be involved to hopefully assist those candidates to have a perspective that extends beyond their own specific districts," he said.
Pattie Tamura, a representative with the Service Employees International Union, shares Ammiano's view that the business community's strategy may backfire.
"I think they may have less influence, in some ways, because the focus of district elections is to turn inward," she said.
Organized labor, however, also is trying to influence the campaign. Its Labor/Neighbor effort is expected to stump for union-friendly candidates, with slate cards, field organizations and door-to-door campaigning that relies more on volunteers than on money.
The 11 districts, each of which will have one supervisor, have about 65,000 residents. In some districts, a candidate may be able to win with 7,000 to 15,000 votes.
That, said Ross of Solem & Associates, means groups that don't have deep pockets, such as those representing tenants, bicyclists and the homeless, can use soft money rather than relying predominantly on volunteer muscle. A soft-money campaign of $1,000 can go a long way in influencing a race, he said.
Repeal measure may go to City voters
Taxi drivers staged a noisy rally at City Hall to fight a proposed ballot initiative they say would make it more difficult for drivers to own their own taxis.
The drivers, who rallied Wednesday, are opposed to a proposed initiative by taxi companies to repeal Proposition K, the voter-approved 1978 measure that requires that all new taxi permits, or medallions, in San Francisco go to working drivers rather than companies.
The measure to repeal Prop. K is not yet on the November ballot, and the exact language has not been released publicly. The initiative can be put the initiative on the fall ballot by Mayor Willie Brown or four members of the Board of Supervisors. The deadline for doing so is Aug. 11.
Supporters of the proposed measure said that the economy and The City had changed since 1978 and that Prop. K was inflexible and obsolete. They would like to see the Taxi Commission have more discretion in issuing permits.
Prop. K requires The City to issue permits without charge to individuals, prohibits transfers of permits between parties and mandates that permit holders also drive full time.
Many drivers fear that if Prop. K is repealed, the commission would be tempted to auction new permits to the highest bidders or sell them to companies, which can pay more than individual drivers.
Taxi companies have tried to repeal Prop. K several times in the past without success.
On July 1, DeSoto Cab Co. sent a letter to its associated permit holders, saying that nine major companies were planning to spend as much as $500,000 on a ballot measure to repeal Prop K. A proposed ordinance was attached.
The companies maintain Prop. K regulations pose an obstacle to improving service to neighborhoods where residents have trouble getting taxis.
Many drivers and their supporters scoff at that claim. They say the current system encourages working drivers to stay in the business.
"If Prop K is repealed, we will be taken over by big corporations that are only interested in profits," said Mark Gruberg of United Taxi Workers, a group trying to form a union among drivers.
Of the 1,381 total taxi medallions, 128 are so-called corporate permits that are held by taxi companies or private corporations. The rest are mainly issued to working drivers. Typically drivers pick the shifts they want to work and the rest of the time lease their cabs to companies to rent out to drivers who do not own medallions. There are 2,600 drivers currently on a waiting list to get a medallion. It takes about nine years to get to the front of the line, according to Officer Farrell Suslow, of the San Francisco Police Taxi Detail.
By Lucia Hwang
San Francisco cab driver Ron Wolter has been waiting a long, long time, and he'll be damned if he's going to allow anyone to cut in line.
A driver for 17 years, Wolter has been waiting since 1991 for a city permit to own and operate his own taxi. When he checked a few months ago, he was number 174 on the waiting list, which runs into the thousands. But in recent weeks the city's big cab companies have launched a stealth campaign to restructure the system of allocating the permits, also called medallions.
The companies want to repeal a 1978 voter-approved ordinance intended to help actual drivers steer the cab industry. The ordinance, Proposition K, mandates that only individuals actively driving a cab can hold city-issued medallions, and it forbids their transfer or sale. If a medallion holder stops driving or dies, the permit is supposed to revert back to the city and be reassigned to a driver.
To own and operate (not drive) a cab in San Francisco, you must hold a medallion. The city circulates a limited number of medallions; there are currently about 1,300 on the street. Some medallion holders operate their own cabs, but most lease their medallion to a larger cab company for a few thousand dollars a month. The companies, in turn, rent out the cabs by the shift to drivers for a "gate" fee – typically about $80 to $90. The fares drivers collect during a shift are theirs to keep.
Fed up with having to pay medallion holders, the city's big cab companies have fought for years for the right to own their own medallions and for medallions to once again become commodities that can be bought and sold to the highest bidder. Mark Gruberg, a spokesperson for driver advocate group United Taxicab Workers, predicts that if the companies get their way, the industry will become more corporatized as companies buy and hoard permits, then are acquired by larger out-of-town concerns more concerned with profits than service.
"If companies build up permits, then the company becomes valuable and ripe for a takeover," Gruberg said. "By requiring that permit holders be active drivers, you have by definition a local industry. Prop. K said these permits shouldn't be private property."
De Soto Cab Company general manager Jim Gillespie said defenders of Prop. K are misrepresenting the cab companies' intentions. Gillespie called Prop. K "inflexible" and said the companies simply want to give the Taxi Commission and Board of Supervisors the authority to make industry changes.
In recent weeks, signs of the companies' campaign to nix Prop. K have surfaced. The San Francisco Examiner reported that the San Francisco Taxi Association, an alliance of the city's nine leading taxi companies, is seeking to raise $500,000 to put a Prop. K repeal measure on the November ballot. The companies have retained the lobbying firm Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst, and Partners, to run the campaign, the Examiner reported.
Meanwhile, a mailer circulated to about 100,000 San Francisco residents by the Council of District Merchants advocated changing "old antiquated laws" that "thwarted" efforts to improve taxi service. The mailer featured a message from Chris Dittenhafer, a taxi commissioner and Mayor Brown's handpicked supervisorial candidate for District Six. Critics accused Dittenhafer of having a conflict of interest by allowing the industry to fund what amounts to a personal campaign mailer.
Dittenhafer said the mailer was unconnected to his political aspirations. "That mailer was going to go out whether I decided to run for office or not," he said. "I just wanted to get the message out to everyone in the city that we need service in the neighborhoods."
He said that he and other taxi commissioners believe Prop. K restricts possibilities for improving cab service.
The deadline to place a measure on the November ballot is Aug. 9, and supporters of Prop. K are watching the mayor and Board of Supervisors to see if either tries to slip in a Prop. K repeal at the last minute. Sups. Barbara Kaufman, Leslie Katz, and Mabel Teng have in the past hired taxi industry lobbyist John Whitehurst to run their political campaigns.
Prop. K proponents suspect it will be the mayor who will quietly put the measure on the ballot – which he can do without board approval or even a public hearing. They should be worried: Yellow Cab Cooperative and Luxor Cabs together gave nearly $50,000 in soft money to help Willie Brown's campaign, according to campaign filings.
So far, however, there's no official measure on the ballot. "It's more than a rumor but less than a fact," Gruberg said of the plot to kill Prop. K.
A repeal of Prop. K would not by itself restructure the medallion system. But it would allow the industry to lobby city hall for major policy changes without having to go to the ballot. That's what worries drivers like Wolter.
"I've been waiting for the last nine years, and it's possible for the rug to be pulled out from under me at the last minute here," said Wolter, who is cochair of the Committee Against Permit Profiteering, a group of cabbies and medallion holders that opposes repealing Prop. K. "I'd like to be able to drive a taxi without having to pay tribute to a large taxi company. The cab companies want a city-sponsored cartel."
San Francisco's latest taxi fight heated up as several drivers accused a taxi commissioner of having a conflict of interest for allowing The City's largest cab companies to pay for a citywide mailer he wrote.
Last week's mailer from the Council of District Merchants was written and signed by Chris Dittenhafer, the council's president and a candidate for the District 6 seat on the Board of Supervisors after being asked to run by Mayor Willie Brown.
The mailer, sent to about 100,000 households, supported changing Proposition K, the voter-approved ordinance that reformed the taxi industry in 1978 by allowing only individual, full-time drivers to gain coveted operating permits and prohibiting their sale or transfer.
Dittenhafer said the council's board of directors had agreed on the position in a recent newsletter. The taxi companies - who have always fought Prop. K - approached him after seeing it and offered to pay for a mailer.
Dittenhafer, who represents merchants on the Taxi Commission, said he'd agreed to accept the companies' help "to get the message of the council out that the public is not being served" by the current laws. "I assumed no malice," he said.
But drivers who attended a Taxi Commission meeting at the Hall of Justice Tuesday evening said commissioners should be independent regulators. At least one commissioner agreed. Mary McGuire, a taxi driver who represents labor on the commission, said, "It's inappropriate."
"This was a campaign piece for the cab companies and for himself," Mark Gruberg, a driver and former chairman of the United Taxicab Workers, told the commission. "How can we expect fair treatment (from Dittenhafer)?"
After the meeting, Dittenhafer said he did not regret sending the mailer. He said he was not trying to promote himself as a candidate, because he agreed to send the mailer before he decided to run.
"This is a political city - of course there are going to be those kinds of accusations," he said.
Dittenhafer would like to see Prop. K changed so that some of its provisions could be altered with the consent of both the taxi commission and the Board of Supervisors. Voters now must approve changes.
Dittenhafer said he wanted to explore the option of granting so-called corporate permits to companies that would agree to spend profits from the permits on delivering service to neglected, outlying neighborhoods.
There are some 1,300 taxi permits in San Francisco, and the waiting list to get one is now more than 10 years.
McGuire said the commission could improve service with Prop. K intact, and said she worried the commission would spend too much of its time before the November election haggling over possible changes rather than working on service. At least five attempts to change Prop. K have failed since its inception.
More than a dozen taxi drivers told the commission Tuesday that Prop. K was an anti-corruption measure that had given hundreds of drivers the opportunity to build a solid career by gaining permits. They said the companies wanted to change it not to improve service, but to eventually get corporate permits and increase profits.
"It's about corporate permits and recreating the market in trading permits that existed before 1978," said James Maddox, a 51-year-old driver and president of the San Francisco Taxi Permit Holders and Drivers Association. "Service is the buzzword."
But several taxi company leaders at Tuesday's meeting said they cared about service and wanted to improve it by allowing public officials the chance to make needed, piecemeal changes.
According to a letter DeSoto Cab Co. sent to its associated permit-holders July 1, nine companies are planning to spend as much as $500,000 on behalf of an anti-K ballot measure. The companies are paying high-powered political consultants Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst & Partners to push their message.
Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco -- Chris Dittenhafer has been Mayor Willie Brown's chosen supervisor candidate in District 6 for only about two weeks, and already he is at the center of at least two hot disputes.
With the nod from Brown, the 34-year-old president of the Council of District Merchants and member of the city Taxicab Commission has taken center stage in the crowded District 6 field, where 30 people have taken the first step toward running in November.
One of the controversies stems from a recent mass mailing about taxi industry reforms to about 100,000 mailboxes featuring a message from Dittenhafer -- as well as his photo -- and paid for by the city's big taxi companies. That has led Supervisor Gavin Newsom to charge that Dittenhafer is a tool of the industry in trying to roll back reforms, a charge the candidate vigorously contests.
Others in the huge field lining up to run for supervisor in District 6 -- which sprawls across South of Market, the Tenderloin, Civic Center, Hayes Valley and parts of the Mission District and Potrero Hill -- charge that Dittenhafer is a carpetbagger who still really doesn't live in the district.
He admits that he moved to the district soon after Supervisor Leslie Katz -- who was expected to seek re-election in that district -- dropped out of the race. Dittenhafer insists, however, that he now lives on Langton Street in SoMa.
But Josie Clevenger, a neighbor of Dittenhafer's in his old Noe Valley apartment house, says she still sees his green Honda in the building's garage every morning and evening.
``Either I've moved and I'm not aware of it, or someone's lying,'' she said, while conceding that she has not seen Dittenhafer around the building for a long time.
Dittenhafer admitted that his car is still there, but only because his roommate still lives in the apartment and they keep their car there.
``I live in the district,'' he said. ``He's going to stay at that place and I'm going to stay at the Langton place.''
The carpetbagger issue, which has been raised against such other candidates as Supervisor Amos Brown in District 11 and Supervisor Leland Yee in District 4, is a hot one in District 6.
``They should stay in their own district,'' said Michael Nulty, president of the Alliance for a Better District 6. ``They should know the players and know the issues. They don't know who their neighbors are.''
The taxi mailer asks recipients to call members of the Board of Supervisors to support enactment of a seven-point ``taxi rider bill of rights.''
It contains proposals such as a dual system of taxi licenses, with one group serving the neighborhoods and another allowed to go downtown; more driver training in safety, courtesy and pedestrian rights; and a ban on further fare increases without better neighborhood service.
``This is a way of getting the community involved,'' said Dittenhafer. ``Service just isn't happening now.''
The mailer was paid for by the big taxi companies and calls for changing ``outdated laws.''
That sends up a red flag to Newsom, the champion of taxi reform who recommended Dittenhafer to Brown for a Taxi Commission slot in the first place.
Newsom fears that the industry is using the mailer as a first step in yet another attempt to get voters to amend Proposition K, the 1978 ballot measure that governs the taxi industry and tried to establish the business as one set aside for driver- owners. Things haven't worked out that way.
``I don't understand why he (Dittenhafer) is doing this,'' said Newsom. ``This is the beginning of a campaign to repeal Prop K. It will be the seventh attempt, and I believe they'll fail again.''
The mailer was put together by the firm of political consultant John Whitehurst, who has long represented the cab industry at City Hall. His business partner is Robert Barnes, a friend of Dittenhafer's who helped get him into the supervisor's race.
Dittenhafer denied being part of a taxi industry plan, saying that the taxi plan has won the support of the citywide merchants group he heads and that the commission so far has not been able to push through the reforms he would like to see.
``This is not a Prop K change effort,'' he said. ``This is an effort to improve taxi service, and some of the changes we want go beyond the powers of the commission.''
E-mail Edward Epstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
They want more medallions, which under current law are allotted to individuals
A battle is brewing over how The City deals out coveted taxi permits, with the largest cab companies preparing a drive to the ballots in search of a larger share and some taxi drivers screaming foul.
The companies want to either amend or repeal a 1978 ordinance that requires The City to issue free permits to individuals, prohibits transfers of permits between parties and mandates that permit-holders also drive full-time.
They maintain the regulations - enacted when voters passed Proposition K in 1978 - are inflexible and outdated and pose an obstacle to improving service.
But critics of the move, including many drivers, call it a power and money grab by companies that have tried unsuccessfully to chip away at the proposition at least five times in the last two decades.
One thing seems clear: The fight to get an ordinance on the November ballot - set against the backdrop of citizen complaints about the poor availability of cabs in The City - is a momentous one.
According to a letter DeSoto Cab Co. sent to its associated permit-holders July 1, nine companies are planning to spend as much as $500,000 on behalf of a ballot measure. Attached to the letter was a proposed ordinance repealing Prop. K.
The companies are paying high-powered political consultants Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst and Partners to push their message. A spokeswoman for the firm said Friday that the effort was in its early stages.
"Right now, the public is very dissatisfied with service, and the companies understand this," said Maggie Muir, vice president of public affairs for the consulting firm. "I don't know if everybody agrees yet whether repealing Prop. K is the answer."
There are some 1,300 taxi permits in San Francisco, with more than 100 owned by people who got them before 1978 and are allowed to lease their permits to companies without driving. Any permit held by a person who dies or abandons it must be returned and reissued. Because they are rationed, the permits are a hot commodity, and the waiting list to get one is now more than 10 years. If the permits could be transferred, some say they would fetch $200,000 or more.
Debate over the value of Prop. K, which some drivers call a beacon of opportunity for individual operators who have a stake in the industry and want to build a steady career, is nothing new.
But the latest effort is unique in that many opponents of Prop. K want to give more power to reshape the laws to The City's appointed Taxi Commission, created by voters in 1998.
Taxi Commissioner Chris Dittenhafer, also the president of the Council of District Merchants and a candidate for Board of Supervisors handpicked by Mayor Willie Brown, figures to be a strong voice against Prop. K.
Dittenhafer, who recently criticized Prop. K as antiquated and outdated in a merchants district maile, said he wanted an ordinance that permitted piecemeal changes to Prop. K with the consent of both the commission and the supervisors.
Dittenhafer said the current law prohibited the seven-member Taxi Commission from improving service to riders, who frequently complain that cabs rarely pick up fares in the neighborhoods, instead focusing on downtown.
"The question is how we regulate an industry with limited resources," Dittenhafer said. "Do we do it with policing or with economic (incentives)?" He said policing was not working, with almost half of all permit-holders not meeting the full-time driving requirement.
He favors allotting some permits to companies, large or small, instead of limiting them to individuals. In exchange, the companies would be required to improve service where fares are leaner.
But critics say Dittenhafer's opposition to Prop. K is advancing the interests of the cab companies, and that giving more power to the Taxi Commission would be similar to allowing the industry to regulate itself.
Supervisor Gavin Newsom said the commission could make positive change with Prop. K primarily intact. Newsom said proposals he had made, such as establishing a centralized dispatch system or an airport-only taxi program, could be instituted now. If the commission wants more policing, it should ask for it, he said.
"The companies want Prop. K overturned to enhance their profits and further their influence," Newsom said. "The principle of Prop. K is individual ownership of permits, and the companies don't like that."
Mark Gruberg, a driver and the former chairman of the United Taxicab Workers, a 200-member advocacy group in San Francisco, said cab companies wanted to be able to obtain more corporate permits to increase profits and wanted the ability to sell permits.
"Prop. K has provided over 700 cabdrivers the opportunity to have their very own taxi permits," Gruberg said. "It gives them a stake in the industry, and provides unparalleled opportunity like in no other city in the nation."
But Muir said drivers acting as independent contractors had no incentive to answer a call in the neighborhoods. She maintained the clients she represented simply wanted to improve service in light of customer complaints.
Repealing or amending Prop. K would allow more taxi permits to be issued, thus improving the availability of cabs, Muir said. She also said changes could allow operators who became ill or injured to keep their permit despite Prop. K's rules on driving full-time. "It's not about customers,"
Newsom countered. "If this is about customers, I have 1,000 ideas for them that they can start working on."
A proposed ballot initiative can be placed on the ballot in any of three ways: with the support of the mayor, with the support of four supervisors, or with a petition drive among city voters.
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